By Alfian Sa’at
I hate saying things that are obvious. But sometimes I see people discussing things which don’t even merit discussion, and it bugs me…and one of these things is about how non-Muslims should ‘dress modestly’ in the presence of Muslims who are fasting. So. I’m taking a deep breath…and…here we go:
The most fundamental consideration when it comes to clothing is comfort. In tropical countries, where the heat causes one to sweat a lot, it is not unrealistic to wear clothes which expose large surface areas of the skin. This facilitates the evaporation of sweat and heat radiation into the atmosphere. It is a perfectly biological way for the body to cool itself.
Of course, human beings are not pure products of nature, but culture as well. So dress codes are devised based on cultural concepts of modesty, and often these codes are gender-variable. The baseline for most societies is that the genitalia, as well as breasts for women, should be covered. In some societies, other parts of the body have become eroticised by men, such as shoulders, arms, legs and even hair, and thus a dress code has evolved that insists these should be covered up too. (On the other hand, some societies have eroticised women’s body parts to the point of requiring body modification for display, including elongated necks, bound feet, shaven eyebrows, sharpened teeth, corseted torsos, etc).
Because women have not historically been in a position of power to decide which of men’s body parts are eroticised, the dress code for men is often much less stringent. This is also because women’s subjectivities–as humans also capable of desiring, or eroticising men–have often been denied or sidelined or silenced.
Anyway, respect is a two-way street.
Your fast is not nullified when you see a woman exposing her legs or arms. Your fast will be nullified when you have sex during fasting. It is the same thing with food–your fast is nullified when you eat food, not when you look at it. Women would disrespect you during Ramadan if they ask you to eat and drink or have sex with them when you are fasting. And you would disrespect them when you loudly object to what they are wearing, even though they are merely wearing what is most comfortable to them, based on their own belief systems (subject to the baseline decency I mentioned above).
If you feel tempted by non-Muslim women’s bare skin during Ramadhan, you can always follow what the Quran says in Surah An-Nur 24:30: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do” and also Surah Al-Kafirun 109:6: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”